Site: Athens, Greece
Dates: April 6-15
Total Athletes: 311
A young French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is attributed to the revival
of the ancient Olympic Games in its modern form and was key to the foundation
of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at a Paris conference in 1894.
The Greeks, who were the authors of the primitive games, were quick to offer a
venue for the modern games, Athens, Greece. It would be the first Olympic
Games in 1,503 years since the 293rd and final edition of the original Olympic
era was held in 393 A.D.
Coubertin's original idea was to revive the Games in 1900 in Paris, France. In
a presentation made to a world athletics congress in 1894, 78 delegates from
some 34 countries were so enthralled with the renewal of the Games, they
decided they did not want to wait until the turn of the century and secondly,
they felt the Olympics should return to where it ended, Athens, Greece.
A photograph of the
interior of the Panathenian Stadium before the start of the 1896 Olympic
Games. (Courtesy of: Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive)
While other countries had attempted to stage their own version of the
Olympick Games in previous years, recognition of the events were non-
existent since it catered to a segregated portion of the world population. The
Greeks hosted variations of the games as well, populated primarily of their own
people, with minimal credibility. The 1896 affair, which attracted some 311
athletes from 13 nations, garnered world-wide recognition since individual
athletes were selected on a national basis and was a symbolism for global unity
among the world of nation states.
The spotlight of the games was the venue of the track and field events. It was
hosted in the classical Panathenaic stadium, which had been reconstructed in
spectacular marble fashion for the Games, thanks in large part to the
generosity of philanthropist Georgios Averoff. So successful were the games
that more than two-thirds of the population of Athens attended the events. The
success of the games was not lost on the Greeks, who made a valiant effort to
secure the Games permanently for Greece. However, the power of Coubertin, the
president of the IOC, and the international principles had been established
once and for all.
As for the Olympics themselves, there were no events at all for women. The
swimming meets were held in the Bay of Zea, where temperatures hovered over 55
degrees. The prominent sports at these Olympics were track and field, cycling,
fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling.
Not surprisingly, the Greeks dominated the competitions, winning 47 medals,
well ahead of the 19 secured by the United States, 15 by Germany and 11 from
The U.S. did win 11 gold medals, compared to the 10 won by the Greeks. The
U.S. also dominated in track fan field, winning nine of 12 events.
One key event to the Games was the marathon, suggested by French historian
Michael Breal, who knew of the legend of Greek hero Pheidippides. Pheidippides
was sent to Athens in 449 B.C. to deliver the news of victory by the Grecian
army over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. As legend would have it, upon
his arrival, Pheidippides yelled out "Rejoice, we conquer!" and dropped dead.
Ironically, the marathon was won by a Greecian postal messanger Spiridon Louis
in a time of two hours in 58 minutes. He was embraced by King George, who
rewarded him with an antique vase, a golden cup, a laurel wreath, and a horse
On April, 6, 1896, American James Connolly of Suffolk, Massachusetts had the
distinction of being the first Olympic Champion since Barasdates of Armenia in
boxing in AD 369 with a triple jump of 44 feet, 11 ? inches (13.71 m). Connolly
very nearly missed the event, which was scheduled on the first day of the
Games. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of the American delegation, the Greeks
were still using the Greek Orthodox Calendar in 1896, meaning their arrival on
March 25, was really April 5, one day prior to his event.